From barracks to beakers

Posted on Tuesday, May 12, 2020

susan Lamb speaks in front of a 75th anniversary banner

"There was a lot of heart, determination and dedication in the founding of this medical school."

— Dr. Susan Lamb, Jason A. Hannah Chair in History of Medicine.

By Jacob Cuthbert
Guest writer

To many, medicine and history are incompatible — they seem to have vastly different approaches and goals. Dr. Susan Lamb, the Hannah Chair for the History of Medicine at the University of Ottawa, believes medicine and history are closer than many people believe, and that the two can work side-by-side to improve medical training. 

"My job is to explain phenomena, not just describe them," Lamb says. "It's not just what happened, but the relationship between events. I am looking for patterns, similar to a pathologist or a biologist."  

Dr. Lamb's passion for medical history is immediately obvious. Pulling an authentic head mirror from the vintage doctor’s bag on her desk, she eagerly demonstrates this outdated but iconic medical instrument. 

"I've always been passionate about history and I've always questioned why things are the way they are… Eventually, I became preoccupied with medicine and its systems," she says.

Lamb's interest in medical history began after her mother was hospitalized. She was fascinated by the interpersonal dynamics in hospitals and healthcare delivery. Shortly after this experience, Lamb began her MA in history at the University of Toronto, where she took courses on the history of medicine and psychiatry. Together, this motivated her to pursue her PhD in medical history at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.  

As a medical historian, Lamb's research spans many different fields. She has authored articles on Canadian leadership at Johns Hopkins Medical School and the history of pharmacology, and written a book on the origins of American psychiatry. She is currently collaborating with Ottawa neurologist Michel Shamy to study end-of-life decision making throughout history. Her principal research, however, is the history of medical education—including a project on uOttawa’s Faculty of Medicine, which celebrates its 75thanniversary this year. 

Lamb says she approaches historical research "like a detective solving a murder."Rather than starting with a theory, she reviews every piece of information and looks for patterns within her findings. Only then does she allow intellectual theories to inform her analyses. This, she argues, allows her to avoid premature conclusions and misinterpretations.  

Besides archival documents and interviews with living alumni, Dr. Lamb has also rediscovered physical evidence of the faculty’s history: hidden away in the Dean of Medicine’s rooms at Roger Guindon Hall, she found a piece of lumber salvaged from the World War II era army barracks where the medical school was first housed.

"These humble beginnings are contrasted against the illustrious faculty,” she explained, “scientists from across Europe who relocated to Ottawa."  

There was a clear drive to promote bilingualism and the training of French-speaking doctors right from the school's foundation, Lamb says. Simultaneously, the founders valued social accountability and serving the Ottawa community.  

"There was a lot of heart, determination and dedication in the founding of this medical school."

Jacob Cuthbert is a 4th year Faculty of Medicine student in the Honours Bachelor of Science Program in Translational and Molecular Medicine. He wrote this story originally for his Science Communications course as part of a series profiling researchers at the Faculty of Medicine. 

The course is designed and taught by Dr. Kristin Baetz, interim assistant dean, research and special projects and professor in the Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology and Immunology, to foster in students the ability to convey complex science to a lay audience – an essential skill when making presentations, applying for grants, composing abstracts for research papers and generally communicating one’s work in the biomedical sciences.

MedPoint will be publishing profiles from this series throughout 2020 . 



Susan Lamb speaks in front of a 75th anniversary banner

Dr. Susan Lamb delivered the keynote speech at the launch of the Faculty of Medicine's 75th anniversary celebrations


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